Friday, October 23, 2009

The Nets, the Rock . . . and the Parking Lots

Things are looking good for bringing the NBA New Jersey Nets to Newark's Prudential Center (known locally as The Rock). The Nets currently play at the Meadowlands -- "meadow" being Northeastern New Jersey's euphemism for the broad swaths of swamp that have prevented serious urban development, for good or for ill, in much of an otherwise-dense area. In other words, the Meadowlands is a bunch of sports complexes surrounded by a beautiful expanse of not much of anything.

The Nets are planning to leave the Meadowlands for a new stadium in Brooklyn, but that stadium has yet to be built, and is currently mired in an eminent-domain court case; it might never happen. In the meantime, it looks like the Nets might come to Newark, at least for a couple years.

There would be considerable advantages for the city. The costs of the Prudential Center are already mostly in place, so almost all the tax revenue brought in by basketball tickets goes straight to the bank for the people of Newark. Last year over 620,000 people attended Nets home games, with tickets ranging from $10 to $500; that's a lot of tax revenue.

It's also a lot of potential business for Newark's downtown and the stadium area. Here's a satellite image of that area (sorry, I couldn't get googlemaps to get rid of the bubble):

It's actually a little hard to make out the stadium itself; I think it's the longish shiny building to the left and slightly above the red 'A.' Just behind the "Map - Sat - Ter" buttons are some tall buildings: that's downtown. And a little further down the right side of the screen is Newark Penn Station; the train tracks come out beneath and slightly to the left, toward the bottom of the image. Newark Penn runs fast, cheap PATH trains to several stops in Manhattan, about half an hour away; it is also a hub of the vast NJ Transit system, with slightly less cheap trains arriving from all over the state.

Which is all to say, this site is very different from the Meadowlands. Here, the stadium is connected to a city, a city that could greatly benefit not only from ticket tax revenue, but also from people coming to bars, restaurants, and even shops around the Prudential Center. And here the stadium is two blocks away from a major transit hub.

And yet notice one other detail on that map: blocks and blocks of parking lots.

The parking lots change the stadium from an asset to a liability for Newark's downtown area. This stadium could potentially draw hundreds of thousands of basketball fans every year. It already brings in about 640,000 fans of the NHL New Jersey Devils hockey team (40 home games a year x almost 16,000 people per game), plus fans of a smalltime soccer team and a local college basketball team, and concerts such as (in the next couple weeks) a couple shows by teen-pop star Miley Cyrus and no fewer than eight performances of Disney on Ice. This place should be surrounded by businesses catering to all these literally millions of visitors to Newark.

But what they find is just what we who live in the city find: blocks and blocks of parking lots. I recently attended an evening event at Newark City Hall - just across one of those parking lots from the Rock and less than a mile from my home. I would gladly have walked, if I were walking through blocks of businesses, homes, and people. But I am not foolish enough to walk at night through empty blocks of parking lots. And we cannot expect Newark's visitors to be stupid enough to cross all those parking lots before getting to area businesses. It isn't interesting, and it isn't safe.
Take out the parking lots. Sell them to whoever wants to be near the stadium. There might be a market for housing, there's surely a market for bars and restaurants, there might even be a market for retail. Let people park at one of the 163 other stations in the New Jersey Transit system, and take the train to Newark.

The Prudential Center ought to tie in with the neighborhoods around it. Businesses around the stadium ought to lure visitors out toward the neighborhoods -- downtown, the beautiful "Coast" to the South, the Ironbound -- and lure people from the neighborhoods in toward the stadium.

Our neighborhood, the Ironbound, just over those train tracks to the east, is one of the healthiest, most vibrant residential and restaurant neighborhoods in Newark. People from the neighborhood should be walking to events at the Pru, and frequenting the businesses that surround it. And businesses between the Pru and the train tracks ought to be encouraging visitors to venture east, until some of them start to cross the tracks and stimulate businesses in the Ironbound.

Instead, the parking lots serve as a "border vacuum," sucking life out of everything around them. The train tracks are a liability for the neighborhoods already: they make for a full block of walking with nothing to do, no decent people around, etc. If there was life on both sides, people would cross under. Instead, there are blocks and blocks of parking lots, sucking life even out of the train-track border of our neighborhood.

Here's the punchline: Cities need to cater to pedestrians. If you have public transportation, use it, to give people more access to the street. And be mindful of the negative effect of requiring pedestrians to cross blocks and blocks of nothing in order to get from one place to another. It isn't interesting, it isn't safe, and it sucks the life out of an urban environment.